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Times Newspapers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:33 pm on 27th January 1981.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Greenwich Woolwich West 6:33 pm, 27th January 1981

I am glad that we are having this debate. What seems to me to be important is not necessarily the character of the present proprietors or of any future proprietors but the simple test whether the Fair Trading Act requires the Secretary of State to make a reference. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that in his judgment he was not required to make a reference and, having made that determination, he was using his discretion not to do so. Then he went on about the assurances. I think that I have stated the position correctly.

What seems to be important is whether The Sunday Times is in an economic state to continue and whether my right hon. Friend was correct in deciding that the test that he would use would be the last 11 months. I do not know—perhaps he does, and I hope that he will tell us if he does—what was the operating success or otherwise of The Sunday Times in the last six months, because the Fair Trading Act, in determining circulation, refers to a period of six months, up to the application. I hope that my right hon. Friend will say whether his researchers show that The Sunday Times w8 making a loss during that period.

I put the test in a different way. If The Times is not profitable, why would anyone pay money to buy the group? One assumes that The Sunday Times is worth more than the money being offered for the group as a whole. If The Sunday Times is not worth more by itself than the group as a whole, presumably The Times is an economic proposition.

That is a simple, logical test and it cannot be applied both ways. It seems fairly clear, on a commonsense point of view—and I may be wrong in saying that common sense is the way in which this matter should be determined—that The Sunday Times is an economic proposition, and therefore the Secretary of State has a duty, if my line of thinking is correct—it is not a question of whether I disagree with him, for I clearly do—to make a reference.

I do not believe that it is up to the House of Commons to determine this issue. It is clearly up to the Secretary of State in the first place, and then up to the courts if people believe that he has been wrong. That is perfectly reasonable. It is not for the House to determine what guarantees should be given, although it is worth while debating the assurances which have been offered and which my right hon. Friend is requiring. The simple question which the House should be deciding is whether it believes that my right hon. Friend has put the right test to himself in making his judgment, and I fear—unless something is said during the rest of the debate to change my mind—that he has chosen the wrong test.

Looking at the whole issue of the prospectus and the story about it put forward by the right hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith), the question that came to my mind was whether my right hon. Friend had seen the prospectus, whether it was a material document to him in making up his mind. Again, it would be useful to those of us who have any doubts as to the way we are likely to behave at the end of the debate if my right hon. Friend could say whether the prospectus was made available to him and to what extent the figures produced by his accountants differed from those shown in the prospectus. These are simple, relevant issues which the House should know about.

I may add that I believe that the usual channels or the party managers, were wrong to put the Whips on for this debate. When there is an urgent matter for an emergency debate, when it is a test of what hon. Members believe to be the honourable behaviour of a Minister, whether we believe that honourable behaviour to be right or wrong in our own judgment—it is not a question whether he is right or wrong in his own judgment, for we all believe that hethinks that he has got it right—and when we are deciding whether we believe that he has got it right, to make the matter subject to a heavy Whip is wrong. For example, if there had been a free vote I am sure that many more hon. Members would have been present. I have noticed during my relatively short experience in the House that that is what tends to happen in a debate where there is a freevote.

I have no direct interest in this debate but if the features editor of The Times reads the debate, will he or she please make sure that my counter article on the future of Family Forum is put in, because I want to correct the misleading impression given by Ronald Butt in his article last Thursday?